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Morning Edition - Transcript

By:
Date:
Location: Washington DC

National Public Radio (NPR)

SHOW: Morning Edition 11:00 AM EST NPR

October 27, 2004 Wednesday

HEADLINE: Alaska Senate race

ANCHORS: STEVE INSKEEP

REPORTERS: ELIZABETH ARNOLD

BODY:

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The state of Alaska has sent only Republicans to Congress for a generation, but an effort to hand over power to a second generation may be in trouble. Two years ago, longtime Senator Frank Murkowski won election to a new job as Alaska's governor. Governor Murkowski then appointed his daughter to finish his term in the United States Senate. Now Senator Lisa Murkowski is seeking a full term of her own but she faces charges of nepotism. Nationwide, she is considered the Republican member of the Senate who is most in danger of losing. Her opponent in Alaska is trying to convince voters that it would be safe to send a Democrat to Washington. Here's NPR's Elizabeth Arnold.

ELIZABETH ARNOLD reporting:

In most election years, control of Congress has been determined before some Alaska voters even head to the polls, but this year, what happens in the far North could play a deciding role. With less than two years in office and having never won statewide election, the incumbent, Lisa Murkowski, has a race on her hands. Many here just can't get over how she got to the Senate in the first place and her father's become one of the least popular governors in the state's history.

Ms. LINDA WILLIAMS (Alaska Voter): I call it the Murkowski double whammy.

ARNOLD: Voters like Linda Williams of Anchorage say the Senate seat should not be family owned.

Ms. WILLIAMS: He had no business. There were people that were qualified to replace him. So as far as I'm concerned, she is there just filling up a chair.

ARNOLD: Try as she might, Murkowski's having trouble shrugging off the family name. Even supporters like Helen Finny of Ketchikan say it's unfortunate.

Ms. HELEN FINNY (Ketchikan, Alaska): Lisa can't help it that she's a Murkowski. It's not fair to hold that against her, but this is the card she's got, so she's got to play it, huh?

ARNOLD: Although the name Lisa is three times as large as Murkowski on her campaign signs, a popular bumper sticker here asks: Yo, Lisa, who's your daddy? But if Dad's a liability, Uncle Ted is an asset. Alaska's other Republican senator, Ted Stevens, isn't her real uncle, but that's how he's known here in the state before of his knack for steering big money and projects back home. Murkowski's not-so-subtle campaign strategy is that a vote for her opponent, Tony Knowles, would put the Democrats in charge and end the gravy train. If you watch enough TV up here, you'd think Hillary Clinton, Tom Daschle and Ted Kennedy are all running against Ted Stevens.

(Soundbite from political ad)

Unidentified Man: Think if Tony Knowles was elected. His vote could put these people in charge of the Senate, in charge of Alaska's destiny and your future, and it would rob Ted Stevens of his community chairmanship that's done us so much good.

ARNOLD: And there's been a steady stream of surrogates to reinforce that notion, including Vice President Dick Cheney. Interior Secretary Gale Norton's made the trip twice now to say that keeping Murkowski in the Senate is the best thing for oil and gas interests in Alaska. Murkowski emphasizes the Republican team in Washington benefits in tax breaks she's helped pass for fishermen, rural Alaskans and veterans and her role in delivering what could be the next big boom.

Senator LISA MURKOWSKI (Republican, Alaska): I returned to Alaska on Monday with incredible news, and this is the authorization, the enabling legislation, the fiscal incentives for a natural gas pipeline. This is the next big opportunity for us as a state. This is what we have been waiting for.

ARNOLD: Development issues dominate in Alaska. Both candidates favor drilling on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge or ANWR. And although the Republican-controlled Congress and White House have failed to open ANWR, Murkowski tells voters chances will be even worse if her opponent prevails.

Sen. MURKOWSKI: I don't think that we want as Alaskans a majority in the United States Senate that is led by Tom Daschle, an individual that has pledged that under his watch ANWR will never be developed. I don't care how many times Tony tells you that he's going to work across the aisle to get more people, if you have a leadership that has committed that it will never be part of the agenda, it will not.

ARNOLD: While Murkowski frames herself as a key part of a much-needed Republican delegation back in Washington, DC, Knowles is running on his experience here at home as an assemblyman, mayor and two-term governor. He first came to Alaska in the late '60s to work on an oil rig and has kept his distance from the national party and those seeking permanent protection of ANWR.

Former Governor TONY KNOWLES (Democratic Alaskan Senatorial Candidate): There's no shortage of bad ideas about what to do with Alaska. We know that. People 5,000 miles away that don't have a clue always have something that they want to see done in Alaska, and we need a strong senator on both sides of the aisle to make sure that Alaska's needs are heard and listened to and we get what we deserve.

ARNOLD: Knowles has brought former Georgia Senator Max Cleland, a Vietnam vet, and Wesley Clark to Alaska to campaign, steering clear of more traditional Democratic figures. But his party affiliation, just like Murkowski's last name, is hard to dismiss. At a recent debate hosted by oil, gas, timber and mining interests, he was asked who he's supporting for president. Both the questioner and Knowles knew the answer wouldn't be popular.

Unidentified Man: Governor Knowles.

Mr. KNOWLES: John Kerry. But whoever gets elected, I'm going to put them on notice when they fight for Alaska, when they work with Alaska for Alaska issues, I'll be with them, both within my party and across party lines. But if they're against Alaska interests and Alaska jobs, I'll fight them all the way to the wall.

ARNOLD: Knowles has tried to center the race on education, health care and veterans issues. He claims Murkowski's beholden to special interests and unwilling to break with her own party. For example, he blasts her support for No Child Left Behind is bad for the state's rural schools, and her position on prescription drugs is siding with the pharmaceutical companies over Alaska seniors. And on development issues, Knowles claims Murkowski puts industry first. His campaign pounced when she held a photo op at an Exxon station, the company responsible for the largest oil spill in the nation's history. Asked about her choice of locale, she referred to the spill as that little issue, the comment now reverberating across Alaska in this Knowles radio spot.

(Soundbite from Knowles radio ad)

Unidentified Man #1: They've got...

Senator LISA MURKOWSKI (Republican, Alaska): They've got that little issue...

Unidentified Man #1: Yup. Yup.

Sen. MURKOWSKI: ...remember?

Unidentified Man #2: What little issue is she talking about? Is it the $5 billion Exxon still owes Alaskans for the oil spill?

Unidentified Man #1: They've got...

Sen. MURKOWSKI: They've got that little issue...

Unidentified Man #1: Yup, yup.

Sen. MURKOWSKI: ...remember?

Unidentified Man #2: Commercial fishermen whose livelihoods were ruined by Exxon.

Unidentified Man #1: They've got...

Sen. MURKOWSKI: They've got that little issue...

Unidentified Man #1: Yup, yup.

ARNOLD: Radio and television are critical in a state where roads are few and distances great. The race is in a statistical dead heat and both parties have pumped big money into the state. While Republicans outnumber Democrats in Alaska by almost three-to-two, they only represent about a fourth of the voters. The rest register as Independents or non-partisan. There's no question as to how the state will vote for president. The last time Alaska went for a Democrat was 40 years ago following the rest of the country to keep Lyndon Johnson in the White House, but the outcome of this Senate race is by no means certain and it just might keep a few people in the lower 48 up long enough for all of the results to come in.

Elizabeth Arnold, NPR News, Alaska.

INSKEEP: The time is 29 minutes past the hour.

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